Is the saga of a relatively happy coexistence of the only two functional democracies with secular political structures in the region over? Can this already very strained relationship survive after the Israeli raid on the Free Gaza Movement’s flotilla of six ships that led to the killing of Turkish citizens by Israeli naval commandos? How has it happened that by expressing its willingness to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Turkey became a sort of party to the conflict? How far can Israel go with its far-fetched assertiveness? What will happen next?
These and others are the questions that puzzle many minds.
Turkey-Israel relations in retrospect
Turkey officially recognized the State of Israel in 1949, only one year after the Declaration of the Jewish State. It was the first Muslim majority country to do so. Since then there have been countless ups and downs in the relations between Turkey and Israel that, as stated elsewhere, can be roughly divided into four different periods.
The first period dates from 1949 to 1960 and is characterized by common foreign policy interests during the Cold War. It was the main driving force behind the formation and the quick development of the bilateral relations.
The second period -- from 1960 to 1990 -- was dominated by rising political tension and growing stagnation in military, economic and cultural fields. Lack of support from Western allies, especially the United States, for the Cyprus problem and economic difficulties following the oil crisis of 1973 led to a shift in Ankara’s foreign policy. During this period, Turkey developed its relations with the Non-Aligned Movement’s Muslim states to garner international support on the Cyprus problem as well as to meet its energy needs. The shift in Turkish foreign policy consequently influenced the existing content of Turkish-Israeli relations.
The third period, sometimes described as a “love affair,” started in early 1990s and lasted till 2002. During this period, problematic relations with Arab countries led Turkey into isolation in its region and at the same time opened new areas of cooperation with Israel. Perceiving Israel as a country sharing similar security-related concerns in the region, Turkish-Israeli relations improved and even evolved into a strategic partnership.
The fourth period, coinciding with the AKP’s term from 2002 onwards, is shaped by the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As this issue also weighs heavily on Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy the factors that made both countries closer during the previous term have disappeared. But, the level of cooperation during the AKP term cannot be underestimated either.
Since the day the AKP leadership took office, around 50 ministry-level visits have taken place between Turkey and Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Israel in 2005 and shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Visits at the presidential level have taken place several times. During this period both governments signed several agreements in the political, economic and cultural areas, trade volume increased by almost 150 percent and military and intelligence cooperation continued.
A total breakdown?
Despite all this, one doesn’t need to be a very attentive observer to conclude that Turkish-Israeli relations have gone from good to bad. In fact, the nature of relations is rather precisely linked to developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A brief look at past events shows the AKP’s consistency in its policy towards Israel. Relations became strained after the assassination of Hamas’ spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin in 2004 and consequently got back on the track following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 only to be derailed once more when the peace process was halted after the Hamas electoral victory in 2006. During Turkey’s sponsored mediation of talks between Israel and Syria, relations warmed up again. After Operation Cast Lead, when Syrian-Israeli talks broke down, we witnessed the battle of words between Erdoğan and President Shimon Peres in Davos.
Although Turkey is not the only country critical of Israeli policies in the Palestinian issue -- or perhaps just because of that -- Israel has become much more aggressive and inventive under its current government in fighting back the criticism. The “low sofa” diplomatic incident is a good example of this newly developed approach.
Not a battle of words anymore
Yet, till now it was still a battle of words. That is unfortunately no longer true. Israeli commandos launched a raid on six “Freedom Flotilla” civilian ships carrying up to 700 peace activists, including a Holocaust survivor, a Nobel Prize laureate, parliamentarians and journalists from 40 countries, and loaded with 10,000 tons of reconstruction, medical and educational supplies for Gaza. Commandos sabotaged the engines of five ships -- Greek, American and Turkish flagged -- and boarded and raided the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara sponsored by the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH). Moreover, the operation was conducted in international waters and as a general rule a ship on the high seas is subject only to international law and the laws of the flag state.
The Freedom Flotilla’s ships were neither stateless nor were they fleeing Israeli territorial waters, a reason that could establish a legal basis for “hot pursuit” conducted under international law. They were not engaged in piracy or mutiny and no belligerent rights were applicable in that case, either. The action was not authorized by the United Nations; the ships were not massively polluting any coasts.
To put it simply, the operation was conducted having no grounds whatsoever in international law. Even the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflict at Sea -- that is, even though it is a non-binding document cited sometimes as a legal vindication of the commando raid -- stipulates in paragraph 8[ii] that “vessels engaged in humanitarian missions, including vessels carrying supplies indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, and vessels engaged in relief and rescue operations” are explicitly exempted from any capture.
Leaving aside the fact that even capture itself would have been against international law, a number of peace activists lost their lives;, Turkish citizens among them. Nevertheless, no official apology from Israeli officials has been extended to Turkey.
Illegal conduct, unusual reaction
This is a very unusual reaction in international relations. Fighting the accusations of being too aggressive with an even greater degree of hostility and hiding behind the twisted regulations of international law is not a very smart reaction, either. Things have gone too far. If the current course of events is not addressed, nobody can expect a bright future. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not dealt with, with final just and viable validity, we can expect a spillover effect of the hostilities all around the region. The Mavi Marmara tragedy is palpable evidence of that.
In this region, we are bound to live together in close proximity to each other. Here, everything is interrelated and interconnected. Hence, the zero problems with neighbors policy is not inevitably meant to be applicable only to immediate neighbors. It is true that in order to reach a full and successful outcome of this policy, nobody should feel isolated. Yet, it is also true that with ordering the conduct of a military operation on the Turkish-flagged ship -- in fact on Turkish soil -- the current Israeli government is imposing an isolationist policy on itself.
*Dr. Sylvia Tiryaki is deputy director of the Global Political Trends Center (GPoT) at İstanbul Kultur University and Can Yirik is a research fellow at the same center.